Israel freeing 87 jailed Palestinians to aid Abbas

Israel Materials 1 October 2007 12:10 (UTC +04:00)

( Reuters ) - Israel began releasing 87 jailed Palestinians on Monday in a bid to shore up President Mahmoud Abbas against rival Hamas Islamists and ahead of a U.S.-sponsored conference on Palestinian statehood.

The prisoners, members of Abbas's Fatah or smaller secular factions, left the desert stockade of Kitsyot and boarded buses bound for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But their departure was held up, with one Israeli official citing logistical problems.

The freeing of prisoners is highly emotive for Palestinians, who see their nearly 11,000 brethren held in Israeli jails as fighters for freedom from Israeli occupation. Many Israelis say such amnesties encourage violence by Palestinian militants.

"I hope there will be peace and quiet," one Gazan inmate told Reuters Television while waiting to leave Kitsyot.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is to meet Abbas on Wednesday to discuss their peacemaking agendas, said only prisoners "without blood on their hands" -- a reference to deadly attacks against the Jewish state -- and willing to sign a document renouncing violence would be freed.

Fatah lost control of Gaza in June to Hamas, which rejects peace efforts with Israel that include a Middle East conference planned for November under U.S. auspices. Palestinians are divided on whether the parley will bring them closer to statehood.

Abbas's office welcomed the prisoner release but said more needed to be done on the issue. The last such gesture by Israel was on July 20, when some 250 prisoners, most of them from Fatah, went free.

Twenty-nine of the 87 prisoners on Monday's release roster come from Gaza and the others from the West Bank. Israel had been expected to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners. Asked about the lower figure, political sources said several prisoners had not met criteria set by the security services.